Drama Desks Sunday, May 19th. Will Winners Overlap With Lucille Lortel Winners?
The Drama Desk Awards like the Lucille Lortel awards are given annually. Unlike the Lortels which honor Off Broadway productions (over 100 this year, musicals, dramas, solo performances) The Drama Desks are the only major New York theater honors for which productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway compete against each other in the same category. Because of the fierce competition, the Drama Desks are to be coveted because they are voted on by media people only and without any vested interests in the results. Though the Tonys are seen globally, they represent highly commercial theatre, which in effect is controlled by the entertainment industrial complex, fueled by corporates. That is why the commercial spots during the Tonys are pricey and the event is all showmanship, glitz and bling for a home audience as they trail in the shadow of the Oscars. For recognition of innovative, experimental, original theatre, the Lucille Lortels and the Obie’s represent Off and Off Off Broadway, but the Drama Desks represent the best of all of NYC theatre.
A few of my predictions for the Lucille Lortels came about. Below are photos from the event.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (photo left thanking the cast) deservedly won for his phenomenal direction of The Piano Lesson. Annie Funke (pictured right with Gyllenhaal in the background) was marvelous in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and I was thrilled she was honored for her outstanding work. I had predicted both of these. I was surprised that the voting committee didn’t select Jake Gyllenhaal. I thought his performance was excellent and Off Broadway would give him a win in encouragement for the risk he took and because his presence and stature creates a vitality and interest for the smaller venue. Interestingly, the committee went with the fabulous performance of Chuck Cooper in The Piano Lesson, a well deserved win. I thought he didn’t have a chance, but in this instance, the committee members were just. His performance was moving and indeed incredible, and yes, I can agree that of the two performances, his was absolutely memorable.
Chuck Cooper (photo left above acceptance speech. Gyllenhaal photo right, at the pre-show photo session) was so ecstatic that he won for Outstanding Featured Actor for The Piano Lesson he basked in the applause and chuckled that, “He might be there a while, because there was no clock.” The show was not televised at NYU’s Skirball Center nor was it streamed, so advertisements and time factor didn’t really intrude. He thanked director “Ruben, a force of nature,” and August Wilson, the Bard of Pittsburgh and the 10 plays that he left (The Piano Lesson won the 1990 Pulitzer for Drama). Aasif Mandi, Master of Ceremonies along with Maura Tierney, (Aasif was nominated for his performance as Outstanding Lead Actor in Disgraced) joked after Chuck Cooper left that Cooper was still thanking people and carrying on backstage about how grateful he was.
I had predicted that The Piano Lesson would win the Lortel for Outstanding Revival and I was gratified to see the committee and I agreed about its being the best of the revivals. Though Vanessa Redgrave didn’t win for Outstanding Lead Actress for The Revisionist (I thought she was wonderful.) I wasn’t disappointed because the brilliant Roslyn Ruff won for The Piano Lesson.
Vanessa Redgrave graciously answered questions right before taking her seat for the award ceremony. She arrived right on time, quickly moving through the pre-show photo shoot. She did stop to chat with nominees’ family and friends.
The only actor from The Piano Lesson who was nominated but who didn’t win for Outstanding Lead Actor was Brandon J. Dirden. I thought he would, but the committee gave the award to Shuler Hensley for playing the morbidly obese, gay, geeky (online tutor) recluse in The Whale. How could that role not be empathetic and soulfully written? Having not seen his performance, I cannot weigh in (sorry for the pun) but I thought Dirden was unparalleled and I imagine he had a greater challenge because he created an empathy for his character that was NOT built in and padded as it was with Hensley’s character which seems to have every underdog trait piled into it to elicit the sympathy one would have for a run over pet. If that part were a female, lesbian, morbidly obese, geeky (online tutor) recluse, I doubt that the character would have been as empathetic to audiences. A morbidly obese, lesbian, geeky (online tutor) female recluse not hidden from the view of the male/female audience? Hardly. Self-righteous, judgmental females would have found her disgusting. A male can get away with so much (gay, morbid obesity) that a female in our culture simply cannot. Do I sound biased? I am. See why HERE. Dirden carried the play with magnificence; his role was the most complex, the richest and most nuanced. Hensley’s role was in the stereotype, a cake walk for an excellent actor. I am not taking anything away from Hensley by suggesting this…just highlighting the impossibility of equating two highly varied roles for the same award; an absurdity.
Off Broadway musicals were a varied range. My friends enjoyed Murder Ballad, but Dogfight beat it out in the competition. Audience supporters were thrilled and the clips for the show did look awesome. I am sorry I missed both, and neither are nominated for Drama Desk Awards which include Lucille Lortel nominees The Other Josh Cohn and Giant one of which may take the Drama Desk. Though the field for the Drama Desk includes Broadway and totals two more musicals, a win for the Public Theatre’s Giant or Here Lies Love, touted by critics and friends alike is good. Those productions are up against Matilda which is a commercial audience favorite, but whose music might not be as lyrical, innovative or clever. Hands on a Hardbody which was unable to produce enough ticket sales to sustain the show which will probably be a total loss to investors never got up the steam to chug it through initial box office doldrums. A Drama Desk win would vindicate the production, though it isn’t likely.
Drama Desks Mirroring Lucille Lortels?
The offerings and categories are different among the Drama Desks and Lucille Lortels. My favorite for Outstanding Revival is still The Piano Lesson, though I loved the Broadway revivals of Golden Boy and Trip to Bountiful. I did not see Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf; actor friends loved it. Shuler Hensley for The Whale is up against Tom Hanks for Lucky Guy, Nathan Lane for The Nance and other Outstanding Actor nominees (highly praised Tracey Letts for Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf). CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE LIST OF DRAMA DESK NOMINEES. I did see Tom Hanks and Nathan Lane’s performances. I didn’t like Lucky Guy, CLICK HERE FOR REVIEW, but Hanks was amazing in a role that goes counter to his usual roles; I liked The Nance, but Nathan Lane is a natural and the role is typical for him, yet he is nuanced and marvelous. It’s a crap shoot, folks. I loved them both. Hanks and Lane. Someone put them in a play together!
I would love to see either an Outstanding Actress win for Cicely Tyson, A Trip to Bountiful (She is a tour de force.) or Vanessa Redgrave for The Revisionist. And for Outstanding Featured Actor my favorite is Tony Shalhoub (Golden Boy) who was so beautiful, loving, sweet and poignant as the father (He reminded me of my own). Chuck Cooper (Piano Lesson) was wonderful and a favorite over two other actors I did see, The Big Knife’s Richard Kind and Brian F. O’Byrne for If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet. The fact that they’ve been nominated is a win, surely, though the Drama Desk is lovely on a mantle piece and an affirmation to continue or retire.
A few words about the Drama Desk’s Outstanding Solo Performance. I reviewed Hold These Truths in the fall. I have been honored to see the evolution of this brilliant play written by Jeanne Sakata and the incredible performance by Joel de la Fuente (CLICK HERE FOR REVIEW) who portrays the journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, civil rights hero. Hirabayashi was one of three American citizens who defied the order for Japanese internment to the desolate camps in the American west during World War II. It was an infamous time when first generation American-Japanese citizens were swept up with naturalized Japanese – American citizens, and forced into the American version of racist concentration camps after they hurriedly gave up or sold their possessions and lost their homes. Joel de la Fuente’s performance does not only portray the young and old Gordon, it includes the portrayal of individuals along the pathways of Gordon’s life: his parents, his girlfriend/wife, friends, officers, judges, et. al. It is a veritable one man show of many characters and in the retelling you are uplifted to understanding the greatness of perseverance and the beauty and the loneliness of the struggle for human freedom and dignity.
Joel de la Fuente’s is an intensely American performance. Hold These Truths is an intensely American play about a time of infamy in our recent history. He deserves the Drama Desk. I hope he wins it because, though Bette Midler was exciting and LOL funny as Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last, and Taylor Holland was marvelous in Ann, a role she wrote and originated, Joel’s work is genius in recreating not one individual, but many. The necessity of capturing the unique individuals to tell Gordon’s story would be a tremendous challenge for any actor. de la Fuente honors Gordon Hirabayashi’s courage (He passed in January of 2012. Obama granted him The Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously on May 29, 2012.) and makes the period and the people live in our hearts and minds. The performance is unforgettable. As much as I appreciated Taylor Holland’s seminal work about the former Texas governor, Ann Richards, so much more was the vitality of Joel de la Fuente’s delineation of people, history and events from the 1930s to the 1980s in Jeanne Sakata’s amazing play, Hold These Truths.